Sad Days in Blacksburg

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My mind keeps going back to the students in those engineering classrooms and the incredulousness mixed with fear that they must have felt. And anger, based on the idea that some incredible and unknown creep was in the process of cutting their lives short.

Hey buddy (I’d think to myself), do you know how much I sacrificed to get into this engineering program? And my parents? I was up all night studying for a test! Please just go into the men’s room and shoot yourself now. I have too many plans for my life for this to happen.

The police are getting much criticism, and much is warranted. They do seem to follow a predictable script when bad things happen. Secure the perimeter. Don’t let anyone in or out, and when the victims finally do get out, make them hold their hands over their heads as though they are the threats. And while preparations are taking place outside, the shooter’s rampage continues unabated. It isn’t until he kills himself that the police seem to decide on an entry plan. Just like Columbine. Is there a better argument for private, decentralized security?

There are questions that the police need to answer. They claim they had good reason to believe that after the initial shootings that took two lives, the gunman had left the campus and was leaving the state. I’d like to know why they concluded that, and whether it was based on nothing more than case studies. It sounds like a story that they evolved after it was clear that their treating the first crime scene as an isolated, one-time event proved deadly.

But still. These are campus police for whom an average busy night involves making sure drunk fraternity members keep their parties inside. That’s the way it should be. Frankly, if my son was considering a school that trained its police to respond to mass murderers, I’d convince him to apply elsewhere. There is a point at which a lack of preparation is a badge of honor for civilization, simply because it reflects a lack of miscreants that need addressing. So the deer-in-the-headlights response we saw at the press conferences on the day of the shootings is (in some ways) to be preferred.

I have less sympathy for Virginia Tech’s administration, which (after all) sets much of the rules and policy under which the police and student body must comply. Shortly after the shootings were made public, a news story surfaced on the Internet about how the Virginia legislature recently killed a bill that would have allowed university students and employees to carry concealed weapons on campus.

The Roanoke Times story included a quote from "Virginia Tech spokesman" Larry Hinker saying that "I’m sure the university community is appreciative of the General Assembly’s actions because this will help parents, students, faculty, and visitors feel safe on our campus." Why do I think that Mr. Hinker’s 15 minutes of fame is not going to be terribly enjoyable?

It shouldn’t be. Gun control policies violate our natural right to self-defense. Would the killer have even ventured out of bed that morning had he thought that one or two people in those classrooms would have shot back? Nonetheless, ABCNews.com posted a story on Monday afternoon asking whether stricter gun control laws should now be called for, thus trying the frame the ensuing political debate and squelch criticism of existing gun control laws at the same time. A reevaluation of anti-depression drugs seems more appropriate. Or perhaps on federal dollar-fueled college admissions policies that reward the quantity of students, at the expense of quality.

Besides, some perspective is in order. A recent Surgeon General study found school-related homicides comprise less than one percent of all homicides involving students, and that the number of school homicides has been falling. Kids are safer on college campuses than they are at most other public venues. This reflects that bourgeois values still persist and the triumph of society’s institutions that promote them. The political class (and the political media) should refrain from using this event to bolster their agendas.

It dishonors those hopeful students who woke up Monday morning but whose lives ended before noon. It is to them, and their grieving families, that my mind keeps returning. Rest in peace.

April 19, 2007

Chris Westley [send him mail] teaches economics at Jacksonville State University, Alabama.

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